Towne Peak, Dolomite Canyon
By: Steve Smith
Having read an old article about the wreckage of a plane crash north of Towne Pass. I had planned for a number of years to locate it some day. The article describes the last flight of an Air Force SA-16 Albatross amphibious aircraft which made a crash landing after the craw bailed out over Death Valley in 1952. On a DPS trip, the subject came up and I learned that Ron Jonas had already been to the site and examined a lot of interesting items, including a 50 pound anchor!
With additional directions from Ron on how to find the site, fellow DPS'er Jerry Boggs, coworker Andy Tennay, and I decided to examine the crash site. Since this is also an area of proposed wilderness and there is a Bighorn sheep water tank in Dolomite Canyon, we decided on an overnight trip to have more time to check out the area and make a traverse through this remote area. Leaving a vehicle on the Big 4 Mine load about three miles north of SR-190, we then drove up to Town Pass. A quick and easy shuttle which was much sore pleasant than the ones we usually have to arrange for desert traverses.
Starting out from Towne Pass there is an immediate gain of 1,000' which puts you on the crest of the Panamint Range. At that point, it only took a short time with binoculars to spot the plane crash on the north side of Dolomite Canyon. The route to reach the crash site was obvious - go over Towne Peak and down the Dolomite Canyon north ridgeline. It was a good route but the canyon extending down from the crash site and back into the bottom of Dolomite Canyon looked formidable - narrow and with several dry waterfalls that were visible end the probability that others existed. We bad two 165' 9mm ropes and equipment for rappel anchors so we decided to go for it.
Proceeding north along the crest, it was an enjoyable five mile climb to the top of Towne Peak at 7,252'. There was fairly heavy snow cover on the northern slopes and the afternoon views south to Telescope Peak with the colorful rock formations of Dolomite Canyon in the foreground were impressive. At the two mile mark, we were directly at the end of Dolomite Canyon and could look down and see the water tanks about 2,000' below us. It appeared that the canyon extending down from the wreck would bring us out slightly above the tanks so that we would be able to determine their condition after dropping down into the bottom of the main wash. While checking the area with the binoculars, I noticed some movement about 300' east of the wreck and sew three Bighorn sheep - a ram and two ewes on a small rock outcrop.
The Towne Peak register showed two DPS exploratory climbs and about ten climbers per year. To the north, new DPS peaks, Panamint Butte and Canyon Point, were visible with Cottonwood Spring just out of sight of the canyon bottom. There were five notations entered by people enroute to explore the plane crash - certainly a long day to hike in from the pass, drop down the 1,000' to the wreck and then regain that elevation and return the five miles back out to Towne Pass. There were no notations of people heading on north to Panamint Butte or Canyon Point which would require some elevation loss and gain but which looked like an appealing future backpack trip.
We dropped down the ridge into a nice saddle several hundred feet above the wreck and camped - enjoying the great sunset views of the Panamints north from Telescope Peak and looking for but not seeing the Bighorn sheep. Next day, we were soon at the crash site. The rear half of the plane and the wings are mostly intact with all types of debris scattered over the area and for 1/4 mile down the canyon.
After exploring an interesting variety of scattered plane equipment, we began dropping down the canyon. We soon began encountering dry waterfalls and put our ropes to good use. We eventually had to do 11 rappels with two perfectly vertical 80' cliffs and one overhanging rappel in a narrow slot which gave us an extra challenge. An intact 450 gal. plane fuel tank was encountered 200' up the side of the canyon and about a mile from the crash site along with the nearby remains of a Bighorn ewe. The tank could have been jettisoned from another plane but I suspect it somehow got thrown out from the crash site and had enough aerodynamic lift to carry it a mile away. The article had described bow the plane had clipped the Panamint crest before crashing into the north Dolomite Canyon ridge so perhaps the wing tank was knocked off at that point.
Surprised by the number of rappels in the north fork of Dolomite Canyon, we reached the bottom of the main canyon in late afternoon and immediately started down-slope - missing the Bighorn sheep water tanks which ended up being a little up canyon from where we intersected the main wash. There was considerable sign of Bighorn sheep in the canyon bottom so water is available in the area and hopefully the water tanks, pipeline, and trough are in working condition. It was well after dark before we completed the walk across the alluvial fan and on out to the road but the wash bottom was easy walking. Now, I just need to schedule another trip to go back and check out the condition of those Bighorn sheep water facilities.
Epilogue - On June 20th. three of us returned to Dolomite Canyon and hiked up to the Bighorn guzzler. A large 2,000 gallon tank is located east of the Big Four Mine load about six miles up Dolomite Canyon. The tank was dry but the tank and water lines appeared to be in good shape. A 2-inch pipeline Leading 600' up canyon to a catchment dam seemed to be intact. The small catchment basin behind a 5' high wall where the canyon narrows was filled in. Hopefully, a project can be organized to clean out the catchment area and that should allow water to flow into the tank.
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